As the Galacticos of world rugby filed past in the background, Northumberland captain Jason Smithson had a medal round his neck and a smile on his face – the Blaydon man having scored two tries in captaining his county to Twickenham glory.
Trailing 10-0 against North Midlands in a nervy start to their County Championship Second Division final at Rugby HQ, a fightback of epic proportions saw the skipper leading from the front as his side found seven unanswered tries in an hour of power-packed rugby. As they celebrated on the sidelines the global superstars of the Barbarians were warming up for their encounter with England – but for Smithson and his men there was only one game that mattered.
The No 8 said: “We are a very proud county, so to have been promoted back into the top division and winning a final at Twickenham means a heck of a lot to us.
“Pulling that shirt on is something special, not just for myself as captain but for every one of the lads.
“It is a huge day for Northumberland rugby and for every club in the county.
“We have a great team of coaches, officials and supporters behind us and they have laid the foundations to enable us to pull off a result like this.” A breakfast-time kick-off ensured a strange feel to the game, Smithson admitting: “It was like going back to mini-rugby days, especially when the bus driver took an unscheduled detour on his way to the stadium.
“My alarm went at 6am so it was a case of shower, a quick bowl of Coco-Pops and off to Twickenham to win the final!”
Win it they most certainly did, but those hopes seemed light years away after a nervy start in which passes went to ground, offloads were fumbled, hurried options were badly executed and Northumberland fell second fiddle to a seemingly composed North Midlands outfit. That sense was backed up on the scoreboard when Moseley fly-half Ollie Thomas slotted a penalty from the left, and the deficit was in double figures when full-back Caolan Ryan collected an inside offload to race down the right.
Thomas converted from the touch-line, but in the huddle between the Northumberland posts a few minds were being focused.
Smithson added: “The senior players had a few sharp words after we conceded the try and just identified where we needed to go.
“We started a bit sloppily, but the lads put a great performance in.
“Some of them are young and have never played at Twickenham before, but they raised the intensity and that was a huge factor for us.
“The boys pulled together magnificently, because you could see everyone had nerves at the start.
“Going 10-0 down and making the mistakes we did was a reflection of that, but we pulled through and really had a clear idea of what we needed to do.”
Forward domination, huge clear-outs and astute running lines were the key, Smithson scoring the first try in the right corner after Matt Hall and Robbie Kalbraier had laid the foundation.
Tom Grimes collected an inside pop from Grant Connon for number two, and when Tynedale flanker Sam Reynolds squirmed over from a close-range ruck a 19-10 half-time lead was theirs. The second half was one-way traffic throughout, huge scrum pressure yielding a penalty try after Simon Barber had knocked-on over the try-line seconds earlier, the Blaydon wing making amends on the hour mark by collecting a neat grubber to score.
Smithson had his second try of the afternoon as a penalty was kicked to touch for a rampaging rolling maul to do its work.
However, the final try of the day went to Grimes as the Team Northumbria centre took an offload from scrum-half Harry Peck to race 40 metres and score.
NORTHUMBERLAND: N Bailey, S Barber, T Grimes, T Banks, P Moralee, G Connon, H Peck; R Kalbraier, M Hall, A Westgarth, G Dunn, K Laughlin, J Hamilton, S Reynolds, J Smithson (captain). Replacements: C Harris, H Mountain, J Davidson, T Schofield, A Smith, D Dickinson.
Northumberland scorers – Tries: J Smithson 2, S Reynolds, S Barber, T Grimes 2, Penalty try. Conversions: G Connon 4, A Smith. Penalties:
NORTH MIDLANDS: C Ryan, C MacBurnie, R Owen, S Shillingford, D Cheshire, O Thomas (captain), J Dudley; A Marfell, W Radburn, S Thorp, S Smith, L Mather, P Horton, B Pons. Replacements: F Sinclair, M Hill, E Parry, D Hughes, D Brazier, W Burton, J Wardle
North Midlands scorers – Tries: C Ryan. Conversions: O Thomas. Penalties: O Thomas.